JARMUSCH, JIM – BROKEN FLOWERS
Why did actor Jeffrey Wright frequently call the Ethiopian Embassy during the
shoot of Broken Flowers? Why did Jim Jarmusch get each of his four female stars
to write a letter to Bill Murray’s character, Don? These and many other
questions, put by Jason Simos, are answered in this entertaining interview with
one of America’s most interesting filmmakers, whose latest film was one of the
hits of Cannes 2005, winning the Grand Prix.
Jim Jarmusch is one of America’s most celebrated independent filmmaker, with a
list of awards and nominations for films like Stranger Than Paradise, Down By
Law, Mystery Train, Dead Man, Ghost: The Way of the Samurai, and now Broken
Flowers, in which the resolutely single Don (Bill Murray) has just been dumped
by his latest lover, Sherry (Julie Delpy). Don yet again resigns himself to
being alone and left to his own devices. Instead, he is compelled to reflect on
his past when he receives a mysterious pink letter from an anonymous former
lover and informs him that he has a 19-year-old son who may now be looking for
his father. Don is urged to investigate this "mystery" by his friend and
neighbour, Winston (Jeffrey Wright), an amateur sleuth and family man. Don
reluctantly embarks on a cross-country trek in search of clues from four former
flames (Sharon Stone, Frances Conroy, Jessica Lange and Tilda Swinton). His
unexpected visit to each of these women holds a new surprise for Don as he
haphazardly confronts his past and, consequently, his present.
The beginning of this movie carries a dedication to (the late French
director) Jean Eustache. How, as a filmmaker, did Eustache inspire you; did he
inspire this particular story?
I have varied reasons for the dedication. He was an inspiration on a certain
level, though not a direct one. His film The Mother and the Whore is one of the
more beautiful films about male/female miscommunication, and there’s an element
of that in our film. So there was only some minor connection to him in content.
And stylistically, our film is not like Eustache at all.
But another way he was an inspiration is because I write in the Catskill
Mountains, in the woods, and I have a little room where I write, and I have a
photograph right next to my desk. The photo is of Jean Eustache on the set of
The Mother and the Whore, and was printed with his obituary in The New York
Times in 1981. He was kind of always looking over me; I wrote this script very
fast, and he was always there when I got stuck or disillusioned. That was
important to me – that photograph of him always being there.
The other reason is that the spirit in which he made films was completely true
to himself and what he wanted to say with cinema. The Mother and the Whore is a
three-and-a-half hour film, a great French film that’s not even available in
France on DVD or video – which I find shocking and disappointing. There’s
something in him that I want to carry in myself: making a film the way you
choose to make it, true to yourself without being concerned with the marketplace
or anyone’s expectations – just the pure spirit of wanting to express something
in your own style. That’s very important to me.
At first I felt, well, maybe it’s pretentious to dedicate my film to him. But,
you know, I think if three young film viewers somewhere in Japan, or Hungary, or
Kansas, or somewhere, see the film and they’re not aware of Jean Eustache and
they find out about his work – he made very few films, only four – then I would
feel like, okay, that was worth it then. That would be enough to make me happy.
As for Broken Flowers, with regard to the letter which initiates the story,
whose penmanship was on the envelope?
It’s Sandy Hamilton, our incredible prop master; he’s very meticulous.
It was such a gift to work with this crew, and all of these people – Mark
Friedberg, our designer; Fred Elmes, the DP…I’ve mentioned only 3, out of maybe
60; grips, gaffers, interns, the craft service guys – they were all just
You’ve worked with Bill Murray before, just a couple of years ago, on the
“Delirium” segment of Coffee and Cigarettes. Did you craft this film
specifically for him?
Yeah. In writing the script, I wasn’t consciously trying to write it imagining
him saying the lines, exactly; I was using a certain side of Bill, and I wanted
to create a character where he wasn’t reliant on things we expect or know or
appreciate from Bill Murray – his ability to make things hilarious. I wanted
that other side; he’s always had that balance of mischief and melancholy –
that’s Bill Murray. It’s that very rare thing he has. So I kind of wanted to
create something that could give a little more weight to that other side of his
abilities as an actor. He liked the script, so I went forward from there based
on his availability as to when to shoot it.
The Coffee and Cigarettes segments were like riffs, and this was more like a
Yes, and it’s a complicated character for an actor. Because Don isn’t a
character that you’re intended to connect with immediately. He’s disconnected
himself, but the empathy accumulates. It was a tricky thing for Bill. He did
such a beautiful job, and brought so much to it.
How did you approach the actresses, most of whom hadn’t worked with you before
like Bill had? Did they all see all of the script, or just their scenes?
The four main ones – Frances, Jessica, Sharon, Tilda – saw the complete script.
What I did with them was to have each one write a letter – the letter – so that
I could plant in their minds the possibility of each being the mother of this
son. I wanted them to write in-character. I saved the letters, which were
beautiful and each very different. That was the first insight into their
characters between me and them. And then, for the filming, I rewrote the letter,
using pieces of their own language, pulling things from their letters.
In this movie, you got Jessica Lange and Bill Murray into another movie
together, 23 years after Tootsie. Actually, I don’t think they have any scenes
together in that movie –
No, but I think they were on the Tootsie set at the same time. They did meet,
and knew each other from that time.
So what was the dynamic like between them now?
Bill was very respectful and excited to work with Jessica on this. And Jessica
seemed pretty particular about maintaining her character as much as possible
while working. Her – Carmen’s – letter to Don was really funny; she said in her
letter, “Under no circumstances will you insult or do anything rude toward this
boy, if he does appear.” [laughs] So I kind of took a lead from that on how to
work with her as this character, and let her keep that resentment toward Don.
Jessica is a class act; she was very warm and lovely with all of us. I would
occasionally tease her by saying, “Let’s not forget, you were the Acid Queen of
San Francisco in 1968!” I’d try to make her laugh at some points to break
tension, being appreciative of what she was going through – what any actor goes
through – to be a pretend person on command, with a lot of history that’s all
made up in their head. It’s a difficult thing.
One of the surprising sequences in the film is where Don visits Laura (Sharon
Stone) and meets Lolita (Alexis Dziena). How did you stoke the chemistry among
We didn’t rehearse, but we all carefully went over the scenes together – hung
out in Sharon’s trailer for a few hours – and talked through them. I did try to
get a playfulness going, because it’s the first stop on Don’s journey – and the
least abrasive for him, emotionally. Laura is not a victim, yet there’s a lot of
tiny sad things about her that Sharon was aware of and helped to bring out. We
tried to get that tone of what we wanted the scenes to feel like, what the mood
would be. I never wanted to talk about the meaning of the scenes, because it
means different things to each character.
Alexis was great. She was quite literal; she wanted to talk with me about each
line and what they meant. She was concerned about showing that while Lolita is,
on one level, teasing Don in a sexual way, she’s really trying to show a
stranger who had a connection to her mother that there’s something missing for
her in terms of a father figure.
And Sharon added some beautiful things. It was Sharon’s idea to be smashed up on
top of Don in bed when they wake up in the morning; it was Sharon’s idea to, on
leaving, kiss his hand. Her idea was, “What if we reverse the traditional
gesture of a man kissing a woman’s hand, and I just take his hand and briefly
kiss it in a little gesture to leave him with, showing that I’m not needy or
devastated but that I’m appreciating a tender thing that happened between us,
and whatever it means is okay.” And that was a perfect solution. I know it’s
just a small thing, but all those add up in the film, so they were all
considered as we went along.
The other significant male role in the movie, besides Bill’s, is the part of
Winston. Did you script the character with Jeffrey Wright in mind, and did the
two actors meet up beforehand?
They didn’t, really. They only met when we first were doing wardrobe stuff and
some test footage. That’s the first time I got to have them together.
I did have Jeffrey in my head while I was writing Winston, although Jeffrey’s
such an incredible chameleon that it wasn’t any particular part of Jeffrey,
except his ability to embody a character that I wanted to not be a stereotype. I
wrote hoping he would be interested in creating the character based on what I
had written – which he did.
While we were shooting, Jeffrey sometimes would be on his cell phone right
before we shot a scene. At one point, I was disturbed and said, “Jeffrey, is
everything okay? You were on the phone –” And he’s like, “Yeah yeah, no no; I
call the Ethiopian Embassy all the time, and I make up questions to ask them out
of the blue, just so I can hear the guy’s accent on the phone.”
We had talked a lot about an Ethiopian accent; it’s a little different from a
generic – if there is such a thing – North African accent, and has a slight
touch of South Asian to it. Jeffrey’s very meticulous, so he’d be on the phone
asking the guy, “Are there any troubles on the Western border?” “No, I don’t
know of anything. Why are you asking?” “Oh, I…” Jeffrey would hear the guy, hang
up, and go, “Okay, I’m ready.” But, at first, I didn’t know who the hell he was
Let me ask you about Sherry, and Julie Delpy. There’s an ambiguity about the
character. She basically introduces the movie by leaving the movie.
We don’t really know what her motive is, and Julie was great to work with to
make that natural. She has some admittedly ridiculous lines to deliver; the film
has some intentional clichés in it, like the French girl’s name is “Sherry,” and
a guy goes to see his dead girlfriend in the cemetery in the rain, etc. I tried
to use clichés, not to subvert them, exactly, but to put them in the film and
have them add up to something not predictably clichéd.
I’ve sort of known Julie for some years now, and I’ve loved getting to hang out
with her occasionally because we talk about books and old films and music and
things that interest us. I’ve always liked her natural feminine intelligence.
There’s a sense in the film that any given encounter with any person can turn
momentous for Don…or not. This is perhaps something that is in your films;
people come to each encounter pregnant with possibilities. Especially in this
film, where Don is looking up all these women?
Well, it is something that echoes through my other films, I guess, because it’s
such a valuable part of life. Randomness, or chance and coincidence – these
things guide our lives. You can plan things out as much as you want, but the
most beautiful, deep things in our lives are not rational; they’re usually
emotional, or connections with other people – and those things are very
mysterious. They add up to a whole fabric of life for me, and I’ve always tried
to make films that were generally not of a genre. Dead Man used a Western genre
as a kind of frame; Ghost Dog makes allusions to different genres of film, but
hopefully isn’t any particular one of them, in the way that this film is not –
to me – a romantic comedy, nor is it a tragic, morose film. It’s something
in-between that I hope doesn’t have a category.
That relates to the question only in that, I like to make scenes where you have
no idea what’s going to happen next and it’s not a formula. It’s sort of like
Chaos Theory: things don’t happen in a rational way, they happen in more of an
emotional way or a random way or by molecules in the universe moving in a way we
Broken Flowers is released in Australia by Roadshow (December 26, 2005).
Published December 22, 2005
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